This is specifically for vega_ofthe_lyre, who might not've done yuletide but still deserves ALL OF THE GIFTS, because I love her and because she is the best of the best of the best. So without further ado: a très Borgia (Theatrical) Christmas Eve. Happiest, happiest hols, babycakes. I made you a murder present. Hint: Cesare Borgia paying very special visits for very special reasons.
painless ghosts, of which she knows
pg-13. ~3k. theatrical studios!au. (canonical code word: cesena.)
The snow is sticking to the ground in the London suburb where Lorqua is renting an apartment for the week. Modest part of town, quiet at night. Michael has been keeping an eye on his schedule, has taken it upon himself to be in the same country, to rent a car, to tail him tirelessly, sleeplessly. His messages have been calm, terse, sure. Cesare has a map of the man’s little life here.
He waits, now, pulling his scarf up around his mouth. The stiller he is, the colder the air, but he does not feel it.
This could easily have been Michael’s job, but he chose against that, chose to come himself. Tonight is, after all, an act of company policy.
Lorqua comes back at 11:12, pulls up in a taxi. When he sees Cesare outside, his dark eyebrows go up, his broad face spreading in a surprised, nervous smile. “Mr. de Borja,” he says. “I wasn’t expecting—”
Since night fell, Cesare has had the gun in his lap. Lorqua’s not quick, but he’s not blind. The taxi has pulled away before he can turn back, no other cars on the road, but Lorqua turns on his heel and runs after that sole pair of fading headlights, boots slapping between the sidewalk and the road.
Cesare draws his gun and fires one shot, silenced. He hears the mosquito whine of the bullet and watches not Lorqua but the snowbank near him. Before the body goes down, he sees the swift abstract flash of blood on the snow. Lorqua is on his knees, breath heavy, near the edge of sobs. Cesare, walking toward him, has time for amusement. All incongruity is amusing, and cruel Lorqua on the edge of tears, bulldog Lorqua with his teeth pulled, is as good an incongruity as he’ll see all week. Hear, really. The sound of those wet, hard breaths is the only sound on the street.
“You’ll retire,” he says calmly. “You’ll make a public statement tomorrow. Pressures of the job combined with physical strain. Berate yourself. You let yourself walk through a dangerous area carelessly. Not all of London is safe at night. Accidents happen.”
“Yes,” Lorqua is gasping. The bullet’s only through his leg, Cesare thinks. It may not even have broken bone. He bends down to look at the wound, which is inscrutable to him: blood soaking into the fabric of Lorqua’s trousers, hardly torn apart from the small, charred bullet hole. He presses a dark gloved finger down next to that hole, drawing the fabric aside, and Lorqua moans like a beaten dog. “Madre de Dios—” No bone, Cesare thinks. He can see the white, yes, now that he’s looking, but there are no shards in the wound. The man will be walking by tomorrow. With effort. He presses his finger down harder, and the sound Lorqua makes is another increment less human. With strenuous effort.
“Tell Orso and his investors that the documents you gave them are worth shit,” he says, smiling. “Fake names, fake titles, fake numbers, fake scripts. Tell him everything when you go back. Make him glad.” Withdrawing his hand from the man’s leg, he stands and looks at the snowbank. There’s not much blood on the snow. Enough to swipe away with one hand, the clean one. He packs the snow in his hands, makes a reddish snowball. There: aside the crumpled shape of Lorqua’s body on the sidewalk, the night is clear again, returned unblemished to its winter hush.
If all of England is like this, his sister should be enjoying herself tremendously. She likes the snow. She likes beauty, more than anything. Sets where she can pretend there’s a pure thing in the world.
He kicks, once, swift and hard at the back of Lorqua’s leg, and the last sound echoes into the night. “Your fault,” he says. “A dangerous area. Mention that to the press.”
“I saw the press conference.”
“And?” he asks.
He hears her sigh on the other end. “I’m glad. I’m glad he’s gone.”
She’s measuring her words. The silence, clipped with things she’s not saying, draws down the phone. He still has tabloid copies in his suitcase from seven months back, from before the wedding—de Borja daughter seen with entertainment lawyer—it never came to much, but he hasn’t thrown them away. Lucrezia climbing onto the plane to London, Lorqua reaching for her elbow. He was in the L.A. office, then, and she’d flown out of New York. He’d said goodbye in California but it wasn’t the last goodbye, and he’d sat in his office and tasted bicoastal bile when she finally flew off. He’d told them to send an office associate with her. Anyone. Someone reliable. Seven months back. “You never liked him, did you?” he asks, and she laughs, sucking in a bright, horrified breath.
“You think I liked him? My God—”
She is laughing, the sound bright with horror. “Cesare,” she says, like he should have known better, but not quite like it’s funny.
“He’s out on his ass now,” he says, and he hears her sigh again.
“So he is.
“You know,” she says, “sometimes I think about the thing with Juan—”
He goes quiet. “Crezia,” he says, warning-tight.
“No, I mean, I thought it was—hyperbolic then, maybe, I thought it was excessive, I thought it was too large, too much. Even when you said how maybe it could be a good thing. I understood what you were saying, but it felt too big at the time to earn the good. Though it certainly came to good in the end.” She pauses. “Sometimes it’s the cleanest thing, isn’t it?” She laughs again. A warmer, stranger sound. “Maybe it spoiled us for choice. The biggest things, the hyperboles, have only ever belonged to us. Father always said we had an infallible knack for the dramatic, that it was in our blood. Nothing else will ever be like that again. That big, that clean in its scope.”
She sounds unhappy. Is, not sounds—he knows her. “How’s married life?” he asks like it’s a wonderful fucking joke, "second round, any different this time?" and she says, “It’s almost Christmas, Chezza. Let’s not.
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” she says, and he lets her hang up on him, a privilege that is uniquely hers. In the silence, slipping his phone back into his pocket, he dwells on the sound of her voice, feels it tug at him, on his restlessness, his sense of the unfinished.
He expected Lorqua to book a flight back to California after the conference, and he books it, but it’s not for another night. He’s not staying in Surrey. He’s staying near the airport—not Heathrow, Gatwick, and spending the night in a little Gatwick attic, like he expected nobody would find him there.
He arrives in the middle of the night, again as though he’s being furtive. Cesare watches him limp up two steps before he descends upon him. The gun’s in his hands. The bullets would be cleaner. He doesn’t want clean, not yet. He kicks the bound back of Lorqua’s leg and watches him collapse like a house of cards, even despite the linen and plaster. His knees thud against the wooden steps, and Cesare takes off his coat and scarf, lays it down carefully and lightly on the snow-slick wood, taking the gun out of the inside pocket of the coat. The cold bites at his shoulders, his neck. He feels it as though they belong to someone else, and disregards the idea of discomfort. The gun in his hands is cool through his gloves. He unlatches the safety.
“I forgot to ask if you had a nice flight over,” he says, “the first time you came,” and Lorqua’s eyes widen, mouth opens, and Cesare puts the gun to his teeth. He can feel them scraping the metal, watches Lorqua’s lips peel back in animal fear. Not good for answering in words, but it’s never been the words that matter. His sister was laughing like the laughter scraped her throat, last night. Lorqua was touching her elbow in the picture, but she was moving ahead. Entertainment lawyer. He met Lorqua at Harvard, where he was Business and Lorqua was Law, in what was universally agreed to be a bastards’ coupling, the start of a faithful friendship, until it wasn’t. Cesare has the sense of bookending, that Lorqua began when the two of them met, that he ends here, in the snow, with gunpowder deep in the back of his throat. Better he taste hot metal than taste Lucrezia. She only laughs like that when she’s been hurt.
Lorqua’s eyes roll toward the sky with the predestined abandon of one of his father’s beloved Madonnas, and Cesare pulls the trigger.
He calls Michael a minute later, the number under Transportation in his phone. “I have luggage,” he says shortly, and Michael will be there in a matter of minutes, he says, with a truck. “Orso’s filming on the continent,” he muses, “isn’t he?” and Michael laughs.
“You want I should bring him a present?”
Cesare nods against the phone. There is blood on his shirt, drying against his skin. He will wait for it to dry before he puts his coat back on. “Yes,” he says. “Haven’t you always wanted to play Santa?” and Michael laughs quick and dry before he hangs up.
His sister, he calls next. Only when he’s back in his hotel room, though. She’s bleary. “Were you having trouble sleeping?” he asks, and she hisses wordlessly down the line. He hears her moving, closing a door behind him.
“It’s two in the morning. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve.”
“Were you dreaming?”
“Not even a little bit.” Sounds of settling make their way softly through the phone. He imagines her in the Easts’ large living room, making herself comfortable and alone. “I wasn’t sleeping well,” she accedes. “You’re right.”
“I forgot to tell you,” he says, “I’m in England,” and he hears her hiss on the other line.
“What else haven’t you been telling me?” she asks.
“I’ll tell you in person.”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” she says again.
The thought passes back and forth between the pair of them unspoken: Christmas is for family. Her breath shudders through the phone.
“Get a suite at the Delaunay,” she says finally. “I’ll tell Alfonso I’m going to midnight mass, and he’ll go to sleep without me. Cesare?”
“I really will be going to midnight mass.” She pauses. “Would you like to come along?”
“I’ll meet you at the Delaunay,” he says. On another night, he would have laughed. Nevertheless, he’ll spare a thought for his sister under stained glass windows, mouth open in hymns. God’s glory might be negligible; hers is not.
Before she comes to him, the day’s spent fielding calls on his cell and watching the details of a particularly grisly murder case unravel over the news: the body found in a caterer’s freezer on Orsini’s set in Nice, the head resting on the steps of the star trailer. One of the secondary actresses, Cleo, calls him herself, Grand Guignol cheer in her voice, happy to be his—happy hols, babe, she says at the end, and he hangs up without anything to say in response. Actresses never make the best spies; there’s a cost to recruiting them, and he’s not willing to pay it tonight. He drinks in the story late into the night like whiskey, with whiskey, at the hotel bar, biting a grin into the alcohol bite, until they turn the carols up loud and the lights down low. He’s up in his room by ten, two hours’ time to kill before she arrives. Takes a bottle to go: Christmas mead, the bartender gives him for half-price with a disarmed look at the room number and name. He shrugs and the bartender does not ask, only thanks him when he leaves with peculiar force. He’s heard the cadence of that emphasis before; he hears Thank you for letting me go in the gratitude.
Waiting for her sobers him up, not that he’d been anything like out of his head. Two hours is verging on three in his solitary room when he hears a swift nervy knock on the door. “Come in,” he says, and from the other side of the door he hears, “You idiot, I haven’t got a key.”
He opens the door and she hurtles inside, still moving fast like she’s running from the cold. Her cheeks are pink, the collar of her camel wool coat turned up to keep off the wind, and in an instant she’s unbuttoning it and unwinding her scarf and tossing them onto the armchair he’s just vacated. “It’s so silent,” she says, and he hears her nerves in her voice. She goes for the radio under the TV, her knack for hotel rooms bordering uncanny by now. “Winter Wonderland” plays—Dean Martin’s, the one their father likes—and she turns up the music loud enough that she can exhale underneath, hard and shaky, and pretend he hasn’t heard. The room fills up with her, around her, instantly. The cloud of her perfume, expensive and new, something her husband or his family must have bought her, cut by the echo of the cold. The music, and her movement, and her discarded coat. She straightens up. Under the coat she’s in a gold damask skirt and a sweater with pearls sewn onto the collar. She looks like a church herself. “How was Mass?” he asks her, eyebrow up in spite of himself—and he was going to be kind about that for the first five minutes, too—and she shakes her head, cuts him in half with a look.
“What’s going on?”
“Have you watched the news?”
“If you think I had time to watch the news—” She laughs, dark with annoyance. “Bella was over, Alfonso’s sister, and I was doing bloody Christmas dinner since ten in the morning, if you think I’ve had half a moment to myself in what’s meant to be my house—and it’ll be more of the same tomorrow, my God, I was happy to get to the church.” Her mouth twists; she looks at him. She went to Mass and now she’s here and the music is an antique blanket around them to keep off the room’s natural lonely silence. This is hers too in spite of everything, in spite of his name on the reservation and her husband on the other side of town. This shares the coin with the church, the vigil they’ve kept for each other. He picks up the bottle of mead, indicates the two complimentary mugs that come with the room and the microwave. She shakes her head, not now. “Why? What’s on the news?”
He’s kept his coat on—from night back to night and quite bypassing the day. Puts down the bottle. “D’you miss our brother?”
“Not as a rule.” She shifts, foot to foot. “Not—sometimes, when I’m talking to Papa, when I see that sort of—shadow go into his eyes. But no. I haven’t—for a long time—and there was no way round it, round Papa. What happened, happened. Why?”
Her Why is knife-sharp. He goes over to turn off the music, by the chair where she put her coat. Switches it off midline and unbuttons his coat, removes his suit jacket, lays them down over hers.
Stains have rusted on his cuffs. He offers her his wrists.
In silence, she takes them in her hands. Her fingers are not shaking. She unfastens the cuff links and lets them drop, fingers on the fabric and sliding beneath, onto the bones of his wrist. Her fingers are cold. He feels them leaching warmth from him, feels delicate lukewarm fingerprints on his skin.
“What have I missed on the news?” she asks, very quietly.
“They found Ramiro Lorqua’s body on Orsini’s film set. They’ve shut down production and taken a whole bunch of them into custody. Orsini and his brother. Vito, Oliver.” A grin’s on the edges of his mouth. He looks at her and decides to save it. There is angry gravity in her eyes, a you think this is funny? challenge. It is, though, he thinks, a neat piece of work, and neat answers to messy puzzles are always funny, but Crezia’s nails are scratching at his finger bones, and it isn’t, again. If she was laughing she’d be laughing that laugh, the blade one, the injured one, and he lets her dig in her nails as deep as she likes.
She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes. Her hands aren’t shaking, but her body is; a pulse leaps rabbit-eratic at the base of her throat. “Why haven’t you gotten rid of this shirt already, Cesare? It’s not like you to be this thoughtless.”
“I wanted to show you,” he says, and her eyes open, again, wide.
“Idiot,” she inhales. “Idiot—you take that off right now.”
The grin comes then, unbidden, and she says, “I didn’t mean—” and she takes away one hand, puts it to her mouth, that hand that was just on his skin, and then it’s reaching out, hard on the still-clean line of his lapel and his collar, her thumb between the buttons and the fabric crumpling under her fingers. She’s leaning in and she’s kissing him, all the heat in her body consolidated into her mouth, her teeth scraping his lip and her fingers still wrapped around his wrist. His free hand goes into her hair. Up in a complicated church bun, but the winter wind’s done half his work for him, and he digs his fingers in between the bobby pins, feeling the delicate hollow where her skull meets her neck. His thumb drags over the soft line of her neck, the sensitive curve of her jaw, and she hisses, biting the sound into his lower lip. He still knows her best, he thinks.
“You’re happy,” he says, a question though he doesn’t give it a question’s inflection, and she pulls back just far enough that he can see all of her face, can see both of her eyes and their wet, glassy shine.
“Enough,” she says. “I’m alive, aren’t I?” She blinks hard, looks at him, frank and bright, banishing both the Easts and the Orsini to a great distance. The only blood that matters in the room is theirs. “I’m intact and he’s left skull splinters in the snow, if I can guess the injury right.” Cesare nods and she tilts her head, mouth tight with hard-won triumph. “Then I’ve won this round.”
“That’s not enough.”
Her eyes on him are still bright and not all of it is wet, some of it is warm. She catches the light of the city outside, the sprawling Christmas lumination out the window. He’ll have to shut the blinds, once he can let her go. Not now, not yet. His hands slide down to her hips, anchoring her, fingertips slipping up under the hem of her sweater and her skin is cool and soft and he hears her sigh, the quick veiled shadow of her lashes fluttering down, but she blinks that away too and keeps her eyes on him, fast and knowing and exasperated and grateful and getting warmer all the time. He’s seen that look in her eyes, reserved for his ultimate cruelties and ultimate kindnesses. He’d spill any amount of blood to keep her like this, her clean hands and her expansive heart, with room for him in it. He slides his hand further up to cup her breast and feel it beat as her hands work to unbutton his bloodied shirt, her hands still steady, her heartbeat slowing under his palm. As ever, she’s the only sacred thing in the heart of the profane.
The shirt hangs open like a sullied surrender flag. She says into his ear, hot-breathed, her teeth on the lobe, “We’re going to burn this.”
He looks hard into her face, wanting to see pleasure there, and she tilts her head and shakes her hair and laughs, suddenly, a clear, knowing sound. She kisses him full and clean and closemouthed just once and he can feel the curve of her mouth edging into an imperfect smile.
“Merry Christmas, huh?”
“So it’s good?”
“I’m here,” she says, and she wraps her arms around his neck like they’ve both come home.